As young children, we fear the imaginary monsters that creep beneath our beds and in the darkness of our closets. As adults, we find that some monsters hide in plain sight and even occupy the world we live in. Throughout the horror genre, monsters range from microscopic parasites to miniature ghouls to colossal beasts. Though they serve to scare and amuse, monsters are used as a way to represent the epitome of fears that people fight internally and externally. In film, humanity finds itself as the victim, the perpetrator, the vessel, and the equivalent to horrifying monstrosities. Holding a mirror up to society’s more prevalent and volatile qualities, monster movies reflect the extreme horrors of our universe. How is humanity different from the monsters we fear? Are we even different at all?
Most of the time, unfortunately, monsters do not come in peace. The fear of invasion from an unstoppable foreign force is one of the most classic monster movie tropes, but has recently become a popular theme among the masses. Considering the human race as one, the threat of an opposing group’s move into the space it occupies is a worrisome possibility. Being that no official evidence or acknowledgement of life outside of earth’s atmosphere currently exists, the potential raid, extermination, and occupation of life as we know it is a frightening prospect. The fights within portions of civilization can become both marginalized and emphasized when placed at the epicenter of this favored genre theme. The resistance against mass attack and control is a prime source of preexisting terror from the conception of this planet’s first breath of life.
The physical invasion of monsters that overrun rural towns like Tremors and Critters pit humans against wild creatures with a more lighthearted optimism toward man’s instinctual heroics and survivalism in a smaller, concentrated arena. Modern features like Bird Box and A Quiet Place see the tremendous genocide of humans all over the world, pinning hope to more devastating, emotionally-charged family situations and elements. Films like The Mist, It Comes At Night, and Feast place a firm focus on isolation with a microcosm of humanity’s strengths and weaknesses resisting the pending horrors of outside takeover.
“The fear of invasion from an unstoppable foreign force is one of the most classic monster movie tropes, but has recently become a popular theme […]“
A more contemporary approach to the attitude man has towards a possible incursion depicts a monster adversary that humans ironically depend on: technology. Advanced beings, whether they are created from our own hands like the Killbots in Chopping Mall, those that hail from another planet with weaponry like the deadly, funny aliens in Killer Klowns From Outer Space, or a supernatural viral power that manifests all on its own like the killer videotape of The Ring, seek to invade under the guise of improvement. While the struggle to exist peacefully still exists solely within the human race, the impending horror of external danger continues to both generate unease and enforce unity in film.
Similarly to the themes of invasion in monster movies, destruction serves as a relative concern when it comes to the infusion of hostile entities with the human race. With the contents of our planet being a product of centuries-long labor, and forever being a work-in-progress, the notion of cities, states, countries, and continents, possibly the planet, being wiped out by a larger-than-life beast is a collective human nightmare. Physically, giant titans like the mutant reptile in Godzilla, the mysterious creature of Cloverfield, and even the consuming substance of The Blob represent our inner fears of large scale destruction. Films that depict the disposal and decimation of humans and their environments in the masses by these fictitious monsters reveal the inner dread surrounding more realistic threats like terrorism and war. Crumbling buildings, the removal of resources, and destroying human lives with no regard, these monsters act as an ultimate metaphor for the massive dangers that could devastate our fragile civilizations.
Stemming from the subconscious fear that humans could be inferior beings, creature features hosting a more organic villain center around society’s ignorance to the actual habitats they depend on. Like natural disaster flicks, the horror genre looks at the give-and-take relationship between humans and the environment, including what happens when nature strikes back. With sustaining life being the ultimate goal of both humans and the planet itself, destructive reactionary triggers continue to evolve. Global warming, pollution, deforestation, and other environmental issues have produced some of the genre’s most notorious monsters with the promise of destruction on all levels.
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“[…] giant titans like the mutant reptile in Godzilla, the mysterious creature of Cloverfield, and even the consuming substance of The Blob represent our inner fears of large scale destruction.“
Wildlife retaliation as seen in films like Cujo, Backcountry, and Jaws turn animals on people in epic showdowns showcasing integral, primal instincts on both sides to fight for their lives. Films like The Host, Swamp Thing, The Bay, and even Little Shop of Horrors, play on the harmful effects of pollution and poisoning the soils of the earth. Indicating the fall of society, these films all play on the common fears of destructive forces at the hands of monsters created and cultivated.
As our whole world experiences one of the most turbulent and deadly pandemics in history, the grossly relevant themes of infection films hit close to home for humans all over. The catch and spread of a parasite as well as the grim consequences to the hosts have played a large role in the horror genre especially when it comes to zombie movies. As a variety of real illnesses take the lives of countless humans each day, the alarming awareness of our mortality has become a standard motivation for filmmakers of all levels. The removal of one’s identity, deterioration of health, the spread of physical pain, and the infliction of eventual death at a viral rate provides for a plethora of thrilling storytelling that stands humanity against one of the most horrifying monsters there is: themselves.
Zombie movies are synonymous with infection plots as they introduce visual monsters into the mix to convey a grander expression of societal and cultural problems. From Night Of The Living Dead to The Walking Dead, these monsters take human form and feed on the active fears of terminal disease, among many other things. Alien infections like those in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Faculty, and Slither show a more tactful spread as the parasites quietly harvest small sections of local towns with the eventual intention of gaining traction over time.
“The catch and spread of a parasite as well as the grim consequences to the hosts have played a large role in the horror genre […]“
Movies like World War Z and The Girl With All The Gifts present the resistance to zombie epidemics on a large scale as Train To Busan and Pontypool use interesting, unconventional settings to stage the mass chaos. Films that allow for their monsters to be born out of the simple act of spreading disease by touch, sight, bite, and even the spoken word unfortunately reflect society’s very real struggle with viral illness and with man’s direct and indirect inability to contain it.
Division plays a tumultuous role in societies and civilizations of all cultures and those kinds of affairs do not fail to include otherworldly beings. Whether by class or by chemical makeup, a divide between creatures coexisting in the horror genre reflects the unfortunate nature of the human world’s predilection to separate and discriminate based on differences big and small. Films like Society, Us, and District 9 depict a lesser group’s torment and subjugation. The duplicate tethered individuals of Us are confined below the ground as the aliens are cruelly appropriated to Earth and managed in camps in District 9.
Society blatantly turns the rich into an amorphous flesh mound that literally absorbs the undesirable individuals of their community. Pan’s Labyrinth tells of a haunting fable and eventual uprising of one girl against mythical monsters and brutalized people against a tyrant. The segregation and xenophobia held by the masses uses the concept of a “monster” in the genre to brilliantly spin the evils back on the social problems that humans still struggle to dissolve.
“Whether by class or by chemical makeup, a divide between creatures coexisting in the horror genre reflects the unfortunate nature of the human world’s predilection to separate and discriminate based on differences big and small.“
Almost all monster movies share the common plot point of us versus them; humans fighting against the monsters. These narratives can range from territorial wars like the action-packed Predator franchise to more nuanced commentaries like those that run throughout the Alien franchise. The basic battle that ensues between beings that are different or pose a hazard to humanity is a tale as old as time. Man’s inherent disposition to conquer and triumph over the embodiment of evil is used as a genre tactic to both entertain and educate audiences.
The meta-horror Cabin In The Woods adapts typical horror tropes for a controlled sacrificial arena in order to appease demanding gods, unleashing a trove of movie monsters with a unique proverbial lesson at its core. Feminist motifs run deep in The Descent as a group of women encounter underground cave mutants in a dark journey for survival of the fittest. The human race has become accustomed to a world where they are sure of what is real and understandably defensive toward the unreal calling them into battle.
As monsters find a comfortable home in universal issues, they also wreak havoc on a more individual basis. Personifying the afflictions that humans independently suffer, monsters in movies that revolve around the protagonist’s internal issues take on the form of more damaging creatures. The Babadook places a top hat on mental health issues, telling the story of a monster illustrated by grief, stress, and distance. Films like The Monster and Colossal bring a monster to life to display the consequences of addiction and substance dependency. Representing emotional traumas and illnesses, these monsters reveal themselves from the dark spaces of a person’s psyche, wreaking havoc on their human hosts and their surrounding loved ones. Unlike the silly monsters that lurk beneath our beds, there are those that mature over time becoming unfortunately stronger and a lot better at hiding.
Family-friendly films like Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark and Goosebumps use a variety of traditional monsters to draw out the foundation and fuel of childhood fears. Adapting Stephen King’s novel of the same name, IT uses Pennywise The Dancing Clown as a composite of individual fears turning the horror up a few notches and making the hunt personal. The ancient evil entity physically manifests as its victim’s greatest fear, whether it be a fictional movie monster or an abusive parent. Further up the horror intensity scale, Hellraiser brings the tormentors of hell to the human realm in the form of Pinhead and his gang of gruesome Cenobites. Promising eternal punishment in pain, these demons take on the existential fears of the unknown that follow our souls beyond this life into the next. Our human connection to the monsters that gave us nightmares as children to the ones that prey on us in the course of our lifespan feed on the energy of our individual afflictions, providing scares for viewers of all ages.
When we look at what makes a monster, it’s hard to ignore the god complex that started with one of horror’s most iconic creations: Frankenstein’s Monster. Frankenstein first popped the bolts onto the universal monsters that have since influenced the genre’s generation of social fears through the objectification of these frightening figures. Turning man into a monster and a monster into a man, the film based on Mary Shelley’s legendary novel thrust the question of true humanity into the spotlight.
The Fly sees another scientist’s self destruction as he accidentally transitions from man to insect, physically becoming a monster over time. The expression of man’s inner monster or ability to turn into a monster is given a unique twist with Gremlins. The sweet, innocent mogwais’ gradual change into evil individual gremlins with relevant characterizations reflects the anarchic composition of human society in saturated form. By design or disaster, horror finds the distinction between man and monster while also portraying the innate comparable.
“Turning man into a monster and a monster into a man, the film based on Mary Shelley’s legendary novel thrust the question of true humanity into the spotlight.“
The trepidation around becoming a monster literally and figuratively tears through the skin in a multitude of horror films. Ushering in the use of metaphorical transformation, werewolves and vampires have marked the genre with the curse of the beast and sunk their fangs deep into internal social conflicts that humans fight to hide within themselves. The Howling, The Lost Boys, An American Werewolf In London, Interview With The Vampire, and Cat People are all examples of humankind’s struggle to accept their psychological, sexual, and mortal desires causing a bodily reaction that bears scary results. Physically turning into something different, the subjects of these kinds of films either find peace in the acceptance of their frightening identities or struggle against the urges that howl from within. The humans in these films try to mask their anxieties, but the monster inside refuses to rest easily.